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Taking a Small Claims Case to Court
This article explains the small claims process from filing a case in Small Claims Court through the possible outcomes.
If you’re looking for more information about Small Claims Court generally, read the article An Overview of Small Claims Court.
Fill out the form
To start a case in Small Claims Court, you must file an Affidavit and Claim in the Small Claims Court. Use Do-It-Yourself Small Claims Suit to get these forms. This prepares the forms you need to file. You can also get the forms from the Michigan Courts One Court of Justice website, or by going to the district court and telling the clerk you want to file a small claims case.
When you fill out the form, leave the signature line blank. You must wait and sign the form in front of a notary public or a court clerk.
File Your Claim
File your claim with the district court clerk.
Either file your case where the dispute took place or where the defendant lives or works. If, for example, you’re a landscaping company suing a client for an unpaid bill, you can file your case in the district where the dispute arose – in this case where you did the landscaping – or in the district where your client lives or works.
When you file your claim, you will have to pay a filing fee. The fee varies depending on how much you’re trying to get in the case. The filing fee is:
$30 for claims up to $600
$50 for claims over $600 up to $1,750 and
$70 for claims over $1,750 up to $5,500
If you win your case, you might be able to get your filing fee back as part of the costs the court awards you.
If you can’t afford to pay the filing fee, you can ask the court to waive your fees. You can use the Do-It-Yourself Fee Waiver form for this. Your case will not start until your request is approved or you pay the filing fees.
The clerk will give your case a number, assign a judge or magistrate and complete the notice of hearing, which will state when and where the hearing on your case will be.
Telling the Defendant About the Claim
The court will send a copy of your claim to each defendant. This is called serving the Affidavit and Claim on the defendant. You must pay the cost of the service. Tell the clerk you want it served by personal service or by certified mail, return receipt requested. The cost of service can be as little as $5.00 for certified mail, or as much as $21.00 plus mileage for personal service.
The Defendant’s Options
When the defendant gets notice of the case, the defendant has some options:
Settling out of court
Removing the case to district court
Appearing in small claims court for the hearing or
Ignoring the case and having a default entered the day of the hearing
Settling Out of Court
The defendant could offer to settle the case before you go to court. If you and the defendant reach an agreement, put it in writing, and both sign it, you can ask the judge to enter it as the judgment in the case. Use the Judgment, Small Claims form.
You might want to consider mediation to reach an agreement. Mediation is a process in which two or more people involved in a dispute meet confidentially to work out a solution to their problem with the help of a trained neutral mediator. You can contact the court clerk or look at the Community Services section of this website to find mediators in your area.
If you reach an agreement, you can also dismiss the case, without having your agreement entered as a judgment. To do this, you can fill out a form called a Dismissal. Call the court clerk’s office where you filed your case to ask about how the court wants the form filed.
If you dismiss the case instead of getting a judgment, and the defendant doesn’t do what was agreed, you have to start a new case. If you enter a consent judgment instead, you can use judicial methods of collection, such as garnishment, to get the money you were awarded.
Removing the Case to District Court
The defendant can decide to remove the case from small claims court to the general district court. You can also decide to remove it. To remove the case, you must file a Demand and Order For Removal, Small Claims in the court where the case was filed before the hearing starts. You can file it before the day of your hearing or on the day of the hearing.
Removing the case means there’s no $5,500 limit on the damages that can be awarded, and you and your opponent can have lawyers. It also means the case will take much longer to complete because formal rules for evidence and discovery will have to be followed.
Preparing for Hearing
Prepare yourself before the day of the hearing: Make a list of what you think the judge or magistrate needs to know.
Gather your evidence. Evidence is what you show a court to prove your case. This might include a sales receipt, guarantee, lease, contract, letter or affidavit from a witness, or accident report. If a damaged article is too big to bring with you, you can present photographs as evidence.
Evidence also includes testimony from witnesses. Any witnesses you ask to speak on your behalf may write a letter or sign an affidavit, but it is best if they appear in court as well. If you need someone to testify who is not willing to come to court, you can get an order to appear. You may want to talk to a lawyer about how to do this.
Going to Court
Attend the hearing and be prepared to present your case to the judge or magistrate. Bring all your evidence to court with you. The hearing will take place at the time and location stated in the notice.
Be there on time. Dress neatly. Arrive 10 or 15 minutes before your hearing is scheduled. It’s important to show up on time. Let the court know you’re there by telling the clerk or officer sitting by the judge’s bench, but do not interrupt the current proceeding.
Be prepared to spend most of the morning or afternoon in court. Bring your witnesses and your evidence with you. Remember to speak clearly, answer any questions the judge or magistrate asks, and don’t interrupt the judge, magistrate or the other party.
Remember that when people represent themselves in court, they are expected to follow the same rules as lawyers do.
What Could Happen
If both the plaintiff and the defendant come to court on the hearing date, one of three things might happen:
The judge or magistrate might recommend mediation. The parties can agree to that and try to solve their problem by coming to an agreement with a mediator’s help. If both parties don’t agree to mediation, the hearing will begin;
Either party could ask to remove the case to the regular district court. To remove the case, you must file a Demand and Order For Removal, Small Claims in the court where the case was filed;
The hearing could start. The plaintiff will get to present his or her case first. Then the defendant presents his or her case.
If the plaintiff does not appear, the judge or magistrate may dismiss the case.
If the defendant does not appear, the judge or magistrate may issue a default judgment based on the case the plaintiff presents.
When you are called, follow the judge or magistrate’s instructions.
Answer the judge’s or magistrate’s questions clearly and directly. If you have witnesses, ask them to tell the court what they know or saw regarding your situation.
Tell the judge or magistrate about your evidence, and present it to the court. Present your case in chronological order. It is much easier for the judge or magistrate to understand what happened if you tell it in the order it happened.
If the defendant is in court, he or she will also have a chance to speak. Take notes so you can ask follow up questions when it’s your turn. Wait for your turn to speak and do not interrupt the other party.
The Result of the Hearing
The judge or magistrate could tell the parties the decision at the end of the hearing. The judge or magistrate can also wait to decide. When the judge or magistrate decides, the court makes sure each party gets a copy of the order.
If you lose the case and the defendant had a counter-claim, you may have to pay the defendant.
If you win your case, read the article Collecting Your Judgment.